TVW marks silver anniversary of “gavel-to-gavel” legislative coverage

TVW marks silver anniversary of “gavel-to-gavel” legislative coverage
Known as Washington state’s “C-SPAN,” TVW for 25 years has provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the state legislature as well as public meetings and important events throughout the state. Photo: courtesy of TVW

During Washington’s 1995 state legislature session, committee meetings and floor debates were broadcast live for the first time by TVW – a “C-SPAN” for the state. Conceived of by Rep. Denny Heck (D-10) and Stan Marshburn, the organization has grown from a small non-profit to a go-to source for attorneys, researchers, lobbyists and reporters covering statewide issues.

“(It’s) remained very consistent with its core mission,” Marshburn said. “I’m happy about that – covering government from beginning to end, unedited, uninterrupted and accessible to the people. It has grown in additional ways that weren’t part of it originally, but are consistent with the core mission.”

Washington’s position within the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. has marked the organization’s upcoming 25th anniversary next month in an unusual manner, by garnering national and global viewers for its live broadcast of updates from Governor Jay Inslee.

Now, “we have people accessing our website all the time from all over the world, so you know that as soon as it happens here there are people watching in Germany and France,” President & CEO Renee Radcliff Sinclair said.  “This situation has really driven home for us the importance of the work that we’re doing to keep Washington state citizens informed about breaking issues.”

Prior to TVW, the state legislature’s proceedings were covered by print and traditional TV news reporting.  Marshburn said that one of the inspirations for TVW came from a half-hour program put on in the 1970s by Clover Park Technical College recapping the legislature.

“I thought what they did was really exciting—it showed things the press didn’t cover,” he said.

By the early 1990s, Heck was acting as Chief of Staff for Governor Booth Gardner during his second term, while Marshburn was serving as his policy director. When Gardner’s term ended, Heck and Marshburn met and agreed that the idea of live broadcasting was worth pursuing.

“I was very fortunate my partner was Denny Heck,” Marshburn said. “He had the perseverance and the drive to make sure that what otherwise had been a vision turn into a reality.”

However, there were obstacles. Not only did the organization need “seed” money, but just as challenging, the case had to be made for what at the time was a novel concept.

“There was no institution, it was just two guys with an idea,” Marshburn said. “To make it happen…we went to foundations, to business, to donors, people who had money. We had to go to (the) editorial board(s) of major newspapers and make our case on why it was good for society and a good component that was missing. We went for two and a half years without a salary.”

Heck and Marshburn also didn’t have the staff needed to move cameras in and out of rooms, which meant the cameras would need to remain in place, cables and all. That required consent from legislators unaccustomed to live broadcasts.

“We had to convince the politicians that a change like this was a positive and not a detriment,” Mashburn said.

Sinclair said at the time there were concerns that legislators “who were very gregarious would go crazy and mug for the cameras. The second (concern) was that people who were not would shut down and not speak at all. Now, I would say that people just have accepted that we are part of the institution and that some of their work is in public. I think in many regards it’s made the debates sharper, and I think that’s good.”

A major breakthrough for TVW came when its first cameras were installed in the Temple of Justice to cover oral arguments in front of the Washington State Supreme Court. They are not only the first organization to do so, but one of the few to this day that broadcast from an appellate court.

In an interview, Heck said these broadcasts were always part of the original vision. “One of the concerns that was expressed to us was ‘What are you going to do between legislative sessions?’ We knew that there was plenty going on of a public policy nature.”

Marshburn said the response to high court broadcasts was overwhelmingly positive. “From the day we started covering the Supreme Court, it received a significant audience. Every lawyer in the state (was watching).”

Yet, he added that “we had a slogan: dare to be dull. We knew that one of the weaknesses of television, period, is the drive to entertain and to get rating shares had led to mediocrity. There’s something about being willing to do authentically what you need to do. If the people want it, it’s there.”

When live broadcasts started in the state legislature, Marshburn said “it didn’t turn it into a Hollywood set. Things were normal, the cameras were just hanging up there in the corners. There was a sense that this was a much smaller step.”

The organization is now overseen by a 25-member board of directors and follows what both Sinclair and others refer to as “gavel-to-gavel” coverage. “When a meeting starts until the time the gavel bangs, we’re there. We don’t edit that, we don’t filter that in any way.”

Gradually, TVW expanded from cable television to online live streaming with archived videos and, most recently, AI-generated transcripts. While transcripts of legislative proceedings were available prior to TVW, Sinclair and Marshburn say the broadcast changed both accessibility as well as study of debates.

“In the past you could look at the record but that was not easy,” Marshburn said. “It took people a lot of effort to figure it out. The record wasn’t instantaneous, and the retrieval wasn’t instantaneous.”

Serving as president since 2015, Sinclair said TVW’s recordings have proven useful to a variety of groups such as attorneys examining laws enacted in the last two decades. “They’ll watch committee hearings and floor debates to ascertain what the intent was as the legislature was passing a new law into existence. In that regard it’s a huge tool for folks. There’s something about being able to go back and listen and watch directly in the moment as to how people were thinking and how they were responding. It really has changed the way we view state government.”

She added that the coverage has becoming increasingly important as the print media presence during sessions had dwindled. “Traditional newspaper journalism is really changing, and they don’t have the budget to send reporters to the state capitol to stay during the legislative session like they used to. People can (now) watch a hearing and get everything they would have gotten if they had been sitting in there. Thankfully the cable community sees the value in what we’re doing.”

Aside from live coverage, TVW also produces its own programs such as “The Impact” featuring interviews with various stakeholders, though Sinclair said “we’re very careful about the reputation we know we have….Whether the lawmakers, whether agency heads or other folks in the business of policy, we really let them tell their story.” They also run old film from state archives in a series titled “Historic Washington,” along with profiles of all 49 legislative districts and the educational series Teach With TVW.

Marshburn is proud of the organization and its work, and says he’s not sure why TVW’s concept hasn’t spread to other states. “It just amazes me that other people haven’t gotten there.”

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